The old ones, the hackneyed and the easy

The old ones, the hackneyed and the easy

Recent threads have talked about ‘Forbidden’ or ‘No No’ tunes, and also what makes something like Drowsy Maggie so apparently popular.

So, I picked up my whistle and decided I’d play some of those ‘No No’ tunes. I played Drowsy Maggie, Donnybrook Fair and the Irish Washerwoman.

Two things strike me:

1 They’re *still* really fun tunes. I hadn’t played them for ages, and *never* on whistle. And I really enjoyed them.

2 They’re SO-O-O-O easy.

Now, I have only started trying to play whistle (in any serious way) since last summer, so I’m definitely a learner - a ‘beginner’ in fact - on that instrument. And, even for me, these tunes are dead easy to play.

I think it’s this easiness that lies behind both the popularity of these tunes and also the groans from *slightly* more experienced players - you know, the people who have mastered the basics and want to play something a bit trickier. People who are not interested in the tunes, in other words.

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Re: The old ones, the hackneyed and the easy

In capable hands, anything can be a cracker. There’s a reason the old ones are still knocking around. Donnybrook Fair is a brilliantly buoyant melody. Same goes for the other "usual suspects." Doubt no tune and breathe them life, it surely beats complaining.

Considering, there’s nothing more enjoyable than hanging around a bunch of amateurs butchering another lately rediscovered rare bird that no one’s heard since Seamus Ennis’ grandmother was in cloth diapers. But you start up on the right foot with something people know and you are groaned out the door….

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Actually, I’m not sure ‘easiness’ is the reason. Is The Irish Washerwoman really an ‘easy’ tune? OK, it’s not Mozart or Vivavldi (just to appease MG), but there are many tunes held in higher general esteem by traditional players that are less technically challenging, in my opinion (I play mandolin, whistle and a bit of fiddle). I have also heard an experienced fiddler friend complain of ‘difficult’ bowing in Drowsy Maggie.

Perhaps it is more a case of the inexperienced players getting hold of the wrong tunes as their starter tunes, coming up against technical challenges and making a hash of the tune as a result. Because they have the preconception that these are ‘easy’ tunes that ‘everyone is supposed to know’, they play them regardless.

So, I think it is their ‘catchiness’ (if you like, the ease of remembering them) rather than technical ease of playing that makes them popular. And it is the frequency with which they are heard played badly that makes people hate them.

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I have recently acquired the habit when picking up an instrument at home of launching unintentionally into the Irish Washerwoman, but I didn’t think I’d confess this in public. I does appear in (English) collections from 150 years ago so it must have some claims to being traditional. When some people are a little snooty about the old warhorse tunes it’s not necessarily because they’ve played them to death - they may actually not have them to hand that confidently. But beginners at sessions shouldn’t struggle bravely and slowly through these tunes (like Harvest Home, Drowsy Maggie, the Lark in the Morning because it does set people’s teeth on edge (but I confess that I probably did when I first went to sessions). They should work on tunes that are not quite so ubiquitous, and they’ll find that the assembled multitude will be more inclined to join in at a helpful and supportive pace and not seize the tune and thrash it to within an inch of it’s life!

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The Washer’s a cracker. Don’ knock it.

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…Don’t knock it.

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Yeah, or we’ll hit ya with a wet towel. 🙂

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Well, ragaman, perhaps it’s dependent on who’s playing and how they play them. I used to play mandolin (gave up because it was wrecking my fingers for fiddle) and I have always found TIW about as simple a tune to play as you can get. Similarly, if your friend finds the bowing in Drowsy Maggie ‘difficult’, I would suggest s/he’s using the wrong bowing. It’s sometimes taught to beginners so that they can get to grips with one of the most basic bowing techniques.

I don’t mean to be harsh. I just think I’m onto something here, and would hate my theory to be capsized by people quoting fact at me. 🙂

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… oh, and you’re right about the Washer - great tune.

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Not all "beginner" tunes are easy on all instruments. Every green fiddle player in the world must play the Jig of Slurs and Atholl Highlanders, but those are finger-twisters on pipes.

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Good on you Ben! I do that too, and it’s great, you’re right on. I’ll take a tune I’ve played a ton on the fiddle, try to transfer it to the whistle, and whole new doors open up, it’s like a new perspective.

Then, I’ll usually go back to the tune on the fiddle, and the foray with the same tune on the whistle has given me a new way to approach it on the fiddle. Some new little thing I hadn’t though of until I tried it on the whistle.

…and, maybe it’s the latent teacher in me, but it makes me happy to see some newbie giving an old chestnut a go. I’ll always play along and help them out, no matter how slow, tortured or disjointed it is, it just seems the right thing to do.

ragaman obviously has a very key point. Hearing an old one beaten horribly by newbies over and over again can make one a bit fatigued with the tune.

But, as we say, what are you waiting for? Show them newbies how it should sound! 😛

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Hey, Silver! I thought the Jug of Slugs was *written* for the pipes? Somewhere on this board, I thought I’d read that that’s how it got its name - slurs meaning something different on pipes apparently … I could be way off, of course …

SWFL - that’s exactly it. Great when that happens isn’t it? Since I took up the whistle I’m varying stuff a whole load more on fiddle, ‘cos of different takes on whistle.

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Not uilleann pipes, Ben. They’re written for Scottish pipes and probably play easier on those.

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Funny, I’d always avoided the jig of slurs, not wanting to give offense to anyone. Now you’re telling us that a different sort of slur is referred to?

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Scottish pipes? Ah, that would make sense.

And don’t ask me about the ‘slurs’ in piping, Jon. I didn’t understand it the first time it came up on this board.

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Hmmm … bit weird … the link didn’t take me to the comment. It does take you to the tune, though. Just click on the comments tab and scroll down to the one from Patrick Kavanagh, where he explains the ‘slurs’.

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A Slur on the scottish pipes would read like this for Jig of Slurs
A2{dc}d dcd|
So the movement is A to d with d and c gracenotes in between. It’s a simple movement on Scottish pipes but not possible for these notes on uilleanns. You can play a slur as D2{gf}g on Irish pipes simply because of where these notes are on the chanter.
Thats one of the reasons that particular tune is tricky on the uilleanns but fairly simple for Scottish pipes. Clear as mud?

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… ye-s-s-s … getting there, at any rate …

And, um, thanks …

[bloody hell, now I need to learn the pipes as well. 😏 ]

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I found a good many of the "beginner" tunes to be the among the hardest ones to play well on the fiddle when I took it up and tried out the tunes I knew. Maybe not so on the whistle, though.

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Really? Which ones?

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I would say that Irish Washerwoman and Drowsy Maggie are both fairly difficult tunes to play well on a fiddle. For some reason they have been branded as "beginner tunes". Probably by the time somebody gets to be proficient on the fiddle, they have been scarred by hearing butchered and mangled versions of these tunes for so long that they have an aversion to them. But they are still grand tunes!

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hear hear to that.

commonly played tunes often aren’t played well, they’re played because they can be played at all. Which is fair enough if you are at an inclusive beginners and others session.

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Drowsy Maggie is an embarrassment to me, on the whistle anyway. I find it a sonofabitch to play, and generally cut corners (after all Matt Molloy, no less, smooths it out a bit…). Nor do I like it much. But it’s not a rubbish tune or a dag tune. Fortunately it always gets played by the session pack in full cry, so my attempts to practise it at the same time go unheard.

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I recently made a comment that I didn’t believe it was possible to have too many fiddle players at a session, then just watched the John Shehan video posted by lazyhound above.
I would now like to unreservedly retract my previous statement.

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How can you say it’s hard to play on whistle, nicholas? What am I missing? (And please bear in mind I’m a beginner on whistle.)

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I was at a late night session a few weeks back, and in the wee hours of the morning, the guitarist broke a string for the third time the evening. He gave up and pulled out a whistle and proceeded to lead the group through a whole series of sets of common tunes: lark in the morning, kesh, blarney pilgrim, maid behind the bar, cooley’s, wise maid, christmas eve, drowsy, etc… all the musicians were magnificent players and the sets were cracking. rekindled my enthusiasm for some for some of the tunes. I used to hate maid behind the bar…funny.

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On rare occasions, when I am at a session and someone has just played The Irish Washerwoman, I will give into temptation and follow the Washerwoman with a boogie-woogie version of this tune called "Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat" by Don Raye.

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Tunes are like quiz questions. Easy if you know the answer, or can play them.

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The tunes are often only as good as you want them to be.
Once, during a break in the session, someone was noodling on "Sailor’s Hornpipe" A wonderful fiddle player ran back to her fiddle. She put so much life into the old tune that it was a highlight of the evening.

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"How can you say it’s hard to play on whistle, nicholas? What am I missing? (And please bear in mind I’m a beginner on whistle.)"

Perhaps you’re not missing anything, Ben. It is worth bearing in mind that what is easy to one person isn’t necessarily easy to another. Our hands are all slightly different shapes and our brains all work slightly diferently. Speaking from my own experience of playing the whistle, I have a kind of synaesthetic (if I may use that term - I am probably using it incorrectly) relationship between fingering and pitch, whereby the higher up the whistle I am, so to speak, the higher the pitch. This holds OK for the first 7 notes of the D scale in either octave. However, when there are frequent jumps between octaves (e.g. the A-part of Drowsy Maggie), the ‘rule’ no longer applies, and a certain amount of conscious brainwork is required to play the right notes at the right time. The same can be true of cross-fingerings. Of course, a bit of practice ‘programs’ the patterns into the fingers so that, eventually, it becomes an unconscious process. But perhaps some people (such as you, Ben) have a better ability to connect actual notes with particular fingering and breath pressure combinations, rather than movement of pitch with movement of fingers.

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Benhall1 you say you are playing some pennywhistle. Have you heard the CD "Totally Traditional Tinwhistle"? I have put it on several times lately. Speaking of the old ones.

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Is there a clip of Matt Molloy playing ‘Drowsy Maggie’? I also think it is easy but I am prepared to try it fresh. I’m going over to YouTube for now.

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No, I haven’t got that CD, Random_notes. I probably should have. But then I hardly ever listen to CDs. Don’t know why that is.

And ragaman, yes, I suppose you’re right that some people would find some tunes easy and some wouldn’t. But wouldn’t the easier tunes still be *relatively* easier no matter who was playing them?

Maybe not. After all these years, I’ve only recently been able to play two tunes, one of which ought, I would have thought, to be an ‘easy’ tune. The tunes are: The Bucks of Oranmore (hard, IMO) and The Morning Dew (ought to be easy, IMO).

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There are no bad tunes just tunes certain people are bored of, or think they aren’t cool????!!!!! Think they’ll be thought less of if they play them.
There is no good reason for not playing a good tried and tested dance tune that people for generations have had a good time with. Imagine a world without these great tunes because if they don’t get played thats what will happen.

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Again, I think hard or easy depends on your instrument. Drowsy Maggie has confused me as a "beginner" tunes because it’s not the easiest thing in the world to play on pipes, at all. Same with the High Road to Linton. But fiddlers seem to find these quite straightforward.

On the other hand, Foxhunter’s Reel in G is a piece of cake on pipes and whistle (and presumably flute) but fiddlers whine how hard it is and how much nicer it is for them to play it in A.

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Excuse me, but I think there ARE bad tunes. Personally, I really
like the three "overplayed toons" mentioned by benhall. And, I’ll confess to loving "Danny Boy" and the "Popeye version" of Sailors Hornpipe.
Bad toons, in my book are those insipid, uninspiring, comfortless miscreations that should be left behind as soon as we become aware of their shortcomings. Chief O’Neill certainly padded his manuscripts with a bunch of them.
As far as the preferred key, as a fiddler, I find it better to yield to the whistle player who has found the sweetest key for their chosen whistle. All seems to come out better for it.

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Foxhunters is no harder or easier in G or A on the fiddle.

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Still it is like Calliope House. If other session players are in D the fiddle player prefers E. Oh, & I like it slow.

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"Foxhunters is no harder or easier in G or A on the fiddle."

Unless you happen not to have got the hang of rolling the 3rd finger across for the dGBG bits. Once that bit o technique becomes second nature, *then* it’s no harder or easier. My guess is, Michael, you’ve been playing dGBG bits in various tunes for a quite a few years now.

I suspect, what fiddlers really like about playing the Foxhunters in A is not so much that it’s technically easier, but the satisfaction of having lots of open strings to play. That’s why Padraig Kelly (and George Whelan before him) played it in AEAE tuning.

Anyway, A is fun.

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Foxhunters no harder in G than A … it also depends, in my view, on speed. That particular tune is sometimes taken at a pace which leaves it either as a blur of notes, ‘cos people can’t really play it at the speed they’ve chosen, or, perfectly in time, like what I call ‘typewriter music’.

Clatter clatter …

Now, take it at a proper pace for a reel, and it’s not too bad. Also, as Michael didn’t point out in his rather terse comment, if you *do* put it up to A, there are some bits that were easy in G that then become harder.

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Or get the best of both worlds and play it in G on the viola - octave below same fingering as A on the fiddle and all those open strings

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